daily office meditation, January 13th: burst.

(To read and pray the daily office along with us in its entirety, click here)

I started writing these devotionals, in the spirit of how Frederick Buechner describes preaching as "whistling in the dark"...as a way of keeping my own spirits up. Perhaps also as a way of, as an untethered man living in an untethered time, trying to find something to keep my own feet on the ground. The format thus far, has been intentionally simple--as I read through the Scripture texts for the morning portion of the daily office, I take note of something that strikes me, inwardly, and I document it here. Simple as that. Yesterday, I recalled I have many wonderful commentaries that might enrich these :), but thus far they have been more guttural and reflexive than that, more in the moment--a conscious attempt to keep these simple and human.

So this morning I took a little bit more time than usual to reflect, not wanting to get caught in a cycle of reading too quickly for the sake of strip mining the text for a treasure (a familiar trap for professional Christians), and honestly felt like I stumbled into some kind of wonderland. Some days it can feel hard to find any fruit on the tree at all, perhaps less indicative of what the text is than where I am--but today I felt like fruit was raining out of the sky, assailing me with goodness. Rich fruit, ripe fruit...a garden paradise, vivid with color and sound and texture.  

I was struck by the unembarrassed, unself-conscious bodily nature of the words, of all the words.  In Psalm 16.9, it's not just my heart and my spirit that are rejoicing but "my body also shall rest in hope." The God who inspired these, is evidently a most sensuous God. Psalm 16.11, "in your presence is there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand pleasures for evermore." I can be much more bashful, about seeking pleasure. But not the Psalms.  God is to be tasted; there is wine to drink, and laughter and sorrow so deep that you feel them in your very bones. 

In Isaiah 42, God is casting off the old restraint, and constraints, and cutting loose of decorum: "For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant." And in the gospel reading from Mark 2, in language that also strikes me for its sensuous character, Jesus tells us that "no one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

We need new wineskins to be sure, but in the meantime, in the drab and frightening world we live in now, the only thing the wine of God's presence could do in such a place is "burst" it open. Perhaps that is precisely the experience you need today--to burst, to explode, to stop holding in both your inexplicable joy and unexplainable sorrow. Our sensuous God is into fullness and pleasure and gasping and panting; colors that burst and sounds that shatter. Stop holding in, your lament, your melody, your primal beat. Let everything real and alive and tender and scary come bursting out of you, and in doing so--the Spirit of God comes bursting into the world, too. If there's a river in your belly, and you don't know where it's going or where it comes from--what else can you do, but let it out? 

Don't be ashamed to be the new thing God is doing, that springs forth into the world, today. 

daily office meditation, January 11th: don't be afraid, little bug

To read and pray through all of the morning portion of the daily office with us, click here

Isaiah 41.14

"Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel."

I am no fan of how certain segments of Christianity have referred to human beings as "worms." It has been used as an expression of human sinfulness, depravity, and inherent nastiness. While I do believe that, in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans, "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God," I do not believe in "total depravity." All humans are created in the image of God-an image that is marred by sin-but never lost. I find such language dangerous, because it does not provide a basis for the essential human dignity conferred on all created beings, just for existing.

I don't believe that God looks on sons and daughters, however wayward, with contempt or condescension because he sees them as somehow too morally compromised. And I certainly don't believe in nonsense like, "God cannot even bear to look at us in our sin, God can only look at Jesus." The primary function of the story of Jesus of Nazareth is to show us that we in fact have a God who looks us eyeball-to-eyeball. The remarkable proclamation of the gospel, is that God looks at us with the same perfect love and delight with which the Father looks at Jesus. So in this regard, humans are not mere worms or wretches. Love has already dignified us too much for that. 

Yet in this context, I utterly adore the playful way God, through the mouth of the poet, refers here to Israel as a worm, as an insect: "Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel!" The expression is familial and affectionate, like a pet name. The language of worm or insect does not gesture toward our infinite moral impurity, but to our smallness.

This is at least part of the liberating word of the gospel, to a people who are living under the tyranny imposed on us everywhere from our advertisements, to our social media, to yes, even our therapeutic pulpits--the tyranny of largeness. The proclamation implicitly preached to us on all sides is that the world revolves around our whims and preferences, that we are bigger than we really are. At first, it sounds like we are being conferred significance, importance.  But of course significance is far too heavy a weight for us to bear.  We are given something much better: created to be ridiculously small, and yet infinitely loved. Being small, being worm-like, is grace indeed.  

I'll never forget the moment when, on a life-altering spiritual retreat in San Diego a few years ago, my spiritual director Sister Anne told me that all of my finest achievements, any book I would ever write, was like a two year-old's drawing that a parent lovingly puts on the refrigerator--not appreciated because it is good, but because I made it. And that my biggest failures were no more surprising, nor more frustrating, than when a two year-old soils their diapers. The scale of our problems is directly correlative to the scale of our lives. For most of us, we don't need our lives to be magnified into wide-screen, but shrunken down to the small screen.

We are not nearly as large, as we think we are. And this is great grace.

And so our playful God tells us, "Little bug! Little bug! don't be afraid, insect-friend! I will help you!"  

daily office meditation, January 10th: weightless grace for weary souls

(To read and pray along with us through the entire morning entry in the daily office, click here)

Isaiah 40:25-31

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The prophet said that even when the youths faint, those who wait on the Lord would be renewed. He said they would run and not be weary, walk and not faint. But I've got to tell you, friends: I get weary a lot these days. The world, as its ordered right now, makes my soul weary. I get discouraged by my own weakness. I get discouraged by the state of the Church in my home country. I fight disillusionment with all of it. Maybe like never before. I'm just old enough, and banged up enough, to be almost all out of youthful optimism.

And yet I tell you, I am more convinced than ever before that real hope doesn't come my way, unless the Spirit brings it on the wind. I don't have it in me, to muster or to work up. It connects to something in me, but it comes from beyond me. I don't have reserves of native hope to pull from. I need the real power of a real Holy Spirit, or I faint, I collapse, I crumble.

It's so easy, isn't it, to be constantly swept up in the tide of the world and its demands of us, trying to be the change, and take the stand, and do the right thing? Until you're so tired and discouraged, you don't want to get out of bed. Some of you know what I'm talking about. Not just a tiredness in your body, but in and underneath your very bones--a weariness of spirit, that you don't know if you'll ever recover from. 

"They that wait on the Lord." And you want to wait, but don't have the luxury to lay in the sand like a beached whale, waiting for God to come. The day asks too much of you, for that. Your life asks too much of you, to sit and wait for anything. I get it.

And yet wherever and however you have paused to read these words, at a stoplight in a bed at a desk or on a toilet, I am praying you will mount up with wings like an eagle, even now--that grace will descend to where you are; that you will feel a lifting that comes from outside yourself. That love will surprise those, who say they have no time to wait, because God honors the hunger of your soul even while your limbs can't stop moving. 

God is coming. Grace is coming. Renewing, sweeping, pick-you-up-off-your-ass-and-carry-you-through-the-day-sweet-Holy Ghost-grace--she's coming. You can't stop her from coming. 

Don't get to thinking, that you can build the kingdom, be some agent of peace or change or justice or hope or reconciliation, without letting this grace come and carry you. We've seen it too many times before--in the name of some good cause, people try to bring the kingdom to the earth, without inviting the King. And whenever we try to build a peaceful, just world without that central, galvanizing life-giving energy of Spirit blowing into our sails--the weight of the world just buries us.

So give up on any delusions that you have the strength within yourself to fight one more day. Give out, give in--just for a moment--long enough to let the flame of love light you, the wind of Spirit blow into you, to let weightless grace to overtake you. 

Weightless grace, where you don't carry it anymore. Weightless grace, where you are floating, not flailing; letting Love Himself pick you up on his shoulders, like the cross he carried for you so long ago. 

There's not a thing in the world, that you must do for the next few seconds--except to let yourself be lifted. 

daily office meditation, January 9th: remember who you are

To pray along with us through this morning's daily office in its entirety, click here. Otherwise: 

Mark 1:1-13

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,"' John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, 'The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Ephesians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

John the Baptist came preaching to folks who had been exploiting the poor, going the crooked way, telling them to straighten up--because the Way himself ,was coming. 

This would be a man unlike any other man, because no other person had ever been so fiercely grounded in the truth of his own identity. No other man before had been so fully convinced of who he was, of who God said he was. When he came bobbing up out of the water, slick brown skin in the Galilee sun, his father announced "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." And Jesus believed what his father said about him. And unlike anyone who lived before or since him, Jesus never forgot who he was. He seemed to live every moment always remembering, the thing we are always forgetting. 

Then later came folks like the Apostle Paul, who were punch drunk on the love of God; captivated by the possibility of living life with the same kind of power, purpose, and deep-seated sense of identity that Jesus did. So in the text from Ephesians, Paul says we are adopted as children through Jesus Christ. He says this was our destiny all along, what we were created for. He says God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. He says we have an inheritance in him, and that we've been sealed with the Holy Spirit. As some translations render it, we now "sit together in heavenly places with Christ."

Now, that's a different, aerial perspective, a different point of view than the one you or I woke up with this morning. So the task now, before we attempt to stand for this or that, walk here or run there--is to sit. To sit, to be still, and to remember who we are, and who we belong to. We have to come apart, and come up higher. Because already there's been a bad dream, a tense conversation, a news show or a tweet that made you forget who you are again--since yesterday, or perhaps long before yesterday.

So can I remind you just for a second, of who God says you are? Can I remind you that you are God's beloved son...God's beloved daughter, more so than you are anything else, to anyone else? That you are beloved, beloved, beloved, all the way down to the bone? You are the source of God's pleasure, and the object of God's delight. Love dances over you, and calls you by your true name again. 

Let everything else pass away, for a moment. Sit above it, in the heavenly places. 

Know that you are not a disappointment or a failure, that nothing you have said or done has caused your Father to stop taking pleasure in you. This coat of many colors cannot be taken from you. No other label assigned by anyone else can negate his name for you, can negate the sweet truth of your belovedness. 

Remember who you are.

Remember, remember, remember. 

Whatever else you need to do or be this day, for Christ's sake, remember your identity. 

Live from this place. Love from this place. 

daily office meditation, January 8th: being brought low enough for saving.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

I have not always had the sense to know that the gospel is only “good news” depending on where you are standing.  If you are in the valley, God is coming to lift you—and this is good news, indeed. But if you are on the mountain, God is coming to bring you low—which does not seem like good news so much.  Except that of course, when you are brought low, you will be ready for God to lift you again!

The world is such an uneven place. And those of us who are currently residing on the mountain, we have such legitimate reasons to fear a God and gospel that always equalizes us.  God coming to bring us low, is our greatest threat.  God coming to bring us low, is our only hope. 

The cycle continues on and on, with or without our consent—of elevating ourselves, and of being brought low, for a lifting that is beyond our reckoning.  Whether or not we are low or high, God is coming—even now—to save us.  But it can be a hell of a long way down, for us to be brought low enough for the saving. 

daily office meditation, January 7th: If God removes our lampstand

To read & pray along with this morning's daily office in its entirety, click here. This morning, my reflection is on the New Testament reading from  Revelation 2:1-7:

'To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

I've come a long way from where I started. I don't believe in a God who is out to get me anymore. A book like Revelation makes me wonder at the beauty of God now, instead of making me wonder about the security of my personal salvation. There are so many ways now I read this magnificent book differently than I did. 

But this text is still disconcerting to me, if for different reasons than I had to be disturbed when I was young. I still remember preaching this passage at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Shelby, NC, my second sermon. It was a young man's fiery hot sermon, about the fiery hot love for God I was always trying to find inside myself but could not sustain. It had to do with flames of emotion, a flame I probably still believed I needed to work up in myself,  then. It had a lot to do with feeling, which would have been the only way I would have known how to speak of love at the time. Now it strikes me as ludicrous that Christ would admonish us to somehow find a way to keep our emotions for God running hot and high, as if that had anything to do with the life of faith. I'm sure at that point, I was still reading a text like this in fear that having my lampstand removed would be synonymous with having my salvation revoked-a consequence for letting the flame of my feelings for God burn to low.

It's still just as sobering now to think about having my lampstand removed, but I don't think that's synonymous with salvation--I think it's about light and influence. This scenario strikes up a kind of fear in me now, not for the sake of my own soul per se, but for the sake of the world. What happens if the salt loses its saltiness, if the light of the world seemingly "goes out" insofar that it was once inside of us? I see now that this was never really about "personal" witness to begin with, per se--but words addressed to a church, to a body of believers, about the real possibility of compromising a corporate witness. 

I can't help but wonder, as a product of the Church in North America, if these aren't the days in which our lampstand is being removed. I can't help but wonder if it's not the devil nor the world that is putting our light out--but God. I wonder if, in an odd way, this too might not be a kind of mercy, for a light that does not burn true to be removed rather than cast a sickly florescent glow onto the world. 

If any of that is true--what might repentance look like? What does it mean to say we might have abandoned the love we had at first, and what might it mean to "do our first works over?"

Surely it has nothing to do with feeling for God. Surely it has nothing to do with emotion. 

Evidently, it has everything to do with that word Protestants dread so very deeply--"works."

And what kind of works, has Christ ever looked for, if not works that embody his care for those on the margins? What kind of people are the works of God extended to, except for those outside the gates of the city? 

What kind of option would a God of perfect love be left with, for a people that not only refuse to care for the poor, the alien, the stranger, the refugee--but actively vilify and demonize them? Might the only merciful thing be to remove their lampstand, to extinguish their "light?" 

Perhaps God loves the world too much, to allow a church that is not based on works of love to continue to burn any longer. Perhaps removing our lampstand, is the only way God can save the world from us.

I hope it's not yet too late, for us to do our first works over. 

daily office meditation, January 6th: the light is never out, and the gates will never shut.

Friends,

As I'm committed to try to pray the daily office, I decided to do a little experiment here where I'd record some reflections on whatever Scriptures are assigned in the morning prayers. These are simply devotional reflections on whatever strikes me from the texts. I hope they can be of some value to you. This first one is perhaps a little meatier (as in, longer!) than most of them will be. If you would like to join me in praying and reading through the office with me, today's morning prayer in full is linked here. Thanks for reading--I plan to post more of these as often as I can. 

Meditation one: upside down, inside-out time

Psalm 46.1-4

1 God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

3 Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

4 The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

            These are upside down, inside out times.  I am tired of elaborating about these times, attempting to explain or account for them.  It is not just that political structures that are trembling, but ecclesial structures.  It is not just our bodies that quivering in the tumult, but our very souls.  It is not just culture that is shifting, but the ground beneath our feet.  Angels and demons are at play in this, and not just demographics. I feel it in my bones; I experience it inside each breath. 

            There are no explanations that are useful; there are no platitudes that comfort.  There is this, and only this: that in such inside out, upside down times, the kind of time when the mountains are toppled and thrown into the sea—the Lord of hosts is with us.  Our own experience of being turned upside down and inside out creates space in us to be immersed into another reality, a reality in which Love rules over all, despite any evidence to the contrary.  

            This does not explain where God is present, or how God is present, anymore than it explains the mountains being cast into the sea .  The Psalm washes over me this morning, delightfully free and unencumbered by the explanations and machinations of logic, sociology, and psychology, the unending hamster wheel I’m always running inside my brain.  It instead only offers me an audacious proclamation: God is here. God is with us.  God is our stronghold.

            I have all the reasons in the world to be afraid, and yet the audacity of faith is to tell me I don’t have to be afraid, anyway.

 

Meditation two: the light is never out, and the gates will never shut. 

Revelation 21:22-27

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

            I never cease to marvel at the brilliance of John’s apocalypse—the brightness and vividness of his visions, the elegance of the literary structure.  Revelation is a linguistic cathedral in which no word is wasted.  One of the most arresting details is John’s use of “ the nations” and “the kings of the earth”—the exact phrases he uses repeatedly in Revelation 12 and following to describe those who make war against the lamb.  And yet in Revelation 21, we see “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” coming into the new Jerusalem.  We know that “nothing unclean will enter there,” so whoever is entering into this city has apparently been cleansed.  But however you work any of this out, it seems that John wants to see that at least some of these now friends of God were numbered among the enemies of God in the story thus far.  Curiously, they would seem to be utterly deposed of in chapter 19--but here they are, entering the new city. (note: I had never seen this movement in the text before reading Brad Jersak’s wonderful book, Her Gates Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem)

            As a simple meditation on only one text, I have no desire to put some kind of stake down here on any big ideas about universal reconciliation.  I don’t find anything much about either this life nor the afterlife to be simple, but to the extent I have thoughts about such matters that are too deep for me, I’d point to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s excellent little book Dare We Hope that all Men Be Saved?  Von Balthasar essentially claims that we should hope for all to be saved, pray for all to be saved, and are given reasons to hope—but also no assurances, which is why we should not be presumptuous about it.  For myself, I am as punch drunk on the love of God as I could be, and do in fact believe in a Love wide and strong enough to redeem anyone.  But I also find repeatedly in Scripture a sort of dogged determination on the part of the Creator to not override human choice; a God too committed to our freedom to drag anyone kicking and screaming even into bliss.  I do not feel inclined nor competent enough to resolve this tension prematurely. 

            For while I don’t believe the God revealed in Christ condemns anyone, I absolutely do believe there is a kind of hell that can be willfully chosen.   Consider the words of Dylann Roof this week, the young man convicted for killing nine black worshippers in a Charleston church last year: “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”  If that is not a description of self-chosen damnation, I do not know what is.  Of course I do not believe that Dylann Roof or anyone else is unredeemable—only that hell is to be stuck in such a place, choosing hate over love.  Love cannot melt us, until we say yes to it. 

            And yet in contrast to the seemingly unending opportunities we have to choose violence, selfishness, and cruelty—here is this city where the light never goes out, and the gates never shut.  The light is always on, no matter how dark it gets.  The gates are never closed to us, no matter what other gates are slammed in our faces.  The night can seem neverending; but so also is the city of light and of love, ever open for us to choose it.  This is the city in which one days Caesars and popes and presidents will one day line up to bring their gifts to worship the One who is Love embodied, just like anyone else. 

            So today the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that comes down, is teaching me how to exist.  And it is not complicated, no matter how complex the world might seem to me in the moment: I’m too keep my light on, and to keep my gates open.  I don’t get to go dark, or shut the gates of my heart.  I get to choose to imitate God by taking on the character of the home God makes for us—wide, wide open, 24/7.  I also have the opportunity to trust that no matter what wounds may come my way in the staying open, or in what ways I may yet wound another—that this too, in the words of the Derek Webb song, shall be made right.  

announcement: going on the road (& new book!) in 2017

Friends,

I'm getting ready to go into 2017 feeling feistier and more focused than ever in my life (perhaps more vulnerable too, but okay with that).  Sensing a lot of grace in this new season on my creative pursuits, I'm leaning hard into them--working on book 3 (due out from Zondervan this year-more on that soon) and...hitting the road to travel and speak full-time!!! I'm no tent revivalist, but feel like I've got the fire of one in my belly, ready to come to your town talk about God, beauty, wonder, love, loss, and every aching thing that makes us human. 

There will also be a LOT more new content here on the new and improved website (many thanks to the incomparable Cody Jefferson for both the design and photography) and on social media, so be on the lookout for that. It feels like in so many ways that I'm finding the sound of my unfiltered voice for the first time in my life. It feels like a time to be a little rowdier, a little more tender, a little more open, a little less guarded. It feels simultaneously liberating and terrifying. But there is this big world out there, and an even bigger God, and you get this one little life. I want to use mine to dream and howl and crackle and instigate louder than I have dared to before. 

For all the friends who have supported me on the ride thus far--from my heart, I can never say thank you enough. It is such grace to be able to explore new territory with you. I am especially grateful for the extraordinary community of Sanctuary Church, a life-saving place and people for me in the most fragile season of my life. I am forever grateful for her and her leaders. Tulsa, Oklahoma and my friends there will still very much be home. Your love and belief in me continues to mean everything.

Now...what do you say we make some sacred mischief in 2017? Shall we?  

If you are interested in hosting me at your church, conference, retreat, university/seminary, community event, pub, bar mitzvah, whatever--fill out the form here, and we will get back with you shortly. I'm excited about meeting more of you guys, sharing some meals, stories and hopefully our souls in 2017.  It's going to be fun.

grace and peace,

jonathan martin  

some thoughts on my friend Jen and The Walking Dead

Last Sunday night, I started flipping through stations after the adrenaline finally crashed, post-preaching…when I stumbled onto The Walking Dead. I long ago swore off of the show.  Like all good post-apocalyptic fiction, The Walking Dead at it’s best is not about zombies, but about what it means to be human.  I agree with the show’s premise, that the real terror is not in the things we are ostensibly most afraid of, but what the things we are afraid of can turn us into. Perhaps precisely because I have lived long enough to cause real hurt and experience real hurting though, I lost my appetite for the show.  The graphic violence, not just to the undead but to the humans, became too much for me.   I know enough about trauma now not to need it simulated.  

            But I couldn’t look away from what I saw.  The small band of survivors at the heart of The Dead’s narrative were in a circle, where the new villain, brandishing a barb-wire baseball bat, was monologuing threats to kill one of them to make an example.  The conceit is that he actually ends up killing not one but two characters, including the most beloved, altogether “good” character in the seven year run of the show.  Not only does he kill them—but he kills them slow and relentless, the camera unblinking as he grinds them into meat. THWACK. THWACK. THWACK. The show’s lone guileless character, the familiar and comforting face, disfigured and crushed. It was horrifying.  I was mad at myself for not changing the station.  It took me hours to go to sleep.  I felt like I couldn’t wash the awful images out of my hair.  For me at least, it was not entertainment, but emotional torture.  It unnerved me to watch something like it on prime-time cable television, the kind of thing that makes you feel less good about the world the next morning. 

            The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was precisely the same one I had deep in my belly in the days that followed after the publication of this interview with my friend, Jen Hatmaker.  In a violent world where I do in fact have moments where I feel surrounded by mindless zombies, Jen is one of those people who over and over models grace, radiates goodness, emanates peace.  As a writer and speaker, devoted mom and friend, she is everything offstage you’d want her to be—deeply kind, gracious, an enormous heart for God and for people.  Her witness for the peaceable kingdom of Jesus has been clear and consistent.  Jen brings grace into every room she walks into large, or small.

            The backlash to her remarks in support of the LGBTQ community was swift and furious.  I was not surprised there was heat—the issues Jen talked about in the interview are among the most sensitive in Church and culture.  What I was not prepared for was the sick splat of THWACK THWACK THWACK.  A serious disciple of Jesus known to bring so much light and love to the body of Christ and to the world, not just disagreed with but mocked and marred, a public image forged from years of loving real people in the trenches, disfigured beyond recognition.  We are often ambiguous in the North American Church as to what we believe about the body and blood of Jesus, but quite certain of our appetite for cannibalizing our brothers and sisters.  The Church too often mirrors the brutal dehumanization of our culture’s politics and pornography, rather than exist as a protest movement against it. 

            It is more sickening than a TV show.  Part of why we love our screens is because they give us power to dehumanize an other, to reduce woman and man to parts, son and daughter to mush, like the scene in The Walking Dead.  A couple of days before that, I was sitting across the table with Jen and Brandon and a few other friends after a night of the Belong tour in St. Paul, MN, sharing much life and laughter.  That was the last time I saw Jen’s face, before the unrecognizable version that kept popping up in my social media feed.  And once again, the next morning the world felt much darker for it.  It is the depravity of this Roman circus we call an election infecting Christ’s Church. I am over it—the sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing, carnivores who do it in the name of Jesus. 

            I understand that sexuality matters, and that the weight of how to work out these most sensitive issues of human existence in a way that is faithful to Scripture, Christian tradition and the experience of the Spirit within the Church is difficult to parse.  I know that for many of my brothers and sisters, they sincerely believe they are at war for the truth and for people’s souls over these issues.  I am in deep relationships with people for whom I love on all sides of these conversations.  Like the Christians I just referenced, I too believe these are high stakes times, that there is a battle with cosmic implications of which we are a part. 

            That battle, however, is not between conservatives and liberals, but with principalities and powers—forces of wickedness in high places.  It is the struggle between God in Christ who is the advocate, and Satan who is the accuser.  Creedal faith, the faith of the apostles, gives us both a lot of room to disagree, and parameters.  It is possible to be an orthodox Christian and to have severe, serious disagreements about weighty social and theological issues.  It is okay to have robust arguments.  But the degrading, dehumanizing rhetorical bludgeoning has its basis in the spirit of the age, not the Spirit of Christ. 

            The global Church, like the early Church in Acts 15, is in a volatile time of upheaval, change, and challenge.  Like those believers, we have inspired texts, the witness of the Spirit, and the testimony of the saints to guide our discernment.  We do not have a spirit of slavery again to fear, but the Spirit who casts out fear, the Spirit by whom we say “Abba, Father.”  The questions with which we are wrestling are important questions, but I am convinced they are not the ultimate questions.  Sexuality matters, justice matters, the role of Christian tradition matters.  But the particular questions are not as weighed as the larger, overarching one: What do we believe God is like?  What is the character of God?  If we are called to be ambassadors of the kingdom, what does the heart of this king look like?

            I am committed to wrestle with the particulars in ways that are hopefully faithful.  I am in the late night conversations.  I am not a spectator but a participant in the nitty gritty of work of being the Church.  I need the wisdom of the Spirit, the resources of Christian tradition, the experience of brothers and sisters who are “other” than me.  I do not claim to have all the answers.  I am an open failure, on the road like anyone else.  I am committed to remaining at the table with people whose convictions are deeply different than mine, because I believe that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more powerful than any ideas that divide us. 

            What I know for sure is that the heart of this God is love and mercy.  What I do know are the fruit of the Spirit.  What I do know is that I see them in abundance in the life of Jen Hatmaker, publicly and privately.  I see a lot of sincere people standing up for Jesus, believing themselves to be standing for the truth.  Jesus, however, is not in need of anyone’s defense—He’s already risen from the dead.  I see Jen’s consistent witness of standing with Jesus at the margins.  If you disagree with her conclusions, I cannot imagine how you can disagree with the heart of cross-shaped love which clearly animates her.  Because she is humble and operates in the Spirit of Christ, I know that no matter the THWACK THWACK THWACK, she will get up tomorrow and work to bring grace to bear in the morning all over again. 

            These are contentious times, the days past civility.  I will be glad for them to be over.  I have considerable ambiguity about this election.  I am unambiguous about my friend Jen Hatmaker: I’m with her.   

 

a prayer for Tulsa.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God

You know what it is, to be in exile

You know what it is, to be a stranger

You know what it is, to a pilgrim

You know what it is, to be homesick.

 

Teach us then, Lord Jesus Christ

How to be faithful, but not pious

How to be restless, but not agitated

How to be loving, but not sentimental

How to be trusting, but not certain.

 

********

 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God

You know what it is, to hold a city in your chest

As your heart broke for Jerusalem

May our hearts break for Tulsa

For all her wounded sons and daughters.

 

Creator, Father, always tender God over all

we lift the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma up to you

our artists, our addicts, our children, our childless

in suits & ties & tattered t-shirts; with badges, with scars

tend to their troubled minds, sick bodies, & broken hearts.

 

*********

 

Spirit of truth, Spirit of life

breathe your breath in North and South Tulsa

your wind to Jenks, your fire to Bixby

your peace & justice to Broken Arrow

until every inch of this city is flooded with you.

 

and as you descend like a dove to us here

send the comforter to Haiti, now

come quickly to our friends in Florida

where the waters and the body count have risen

oh God, send your peace, & send your people.  

the place where Christ lives.

There is a fragile place in you that shatters on a Tuesday morning, when all you are looking for is a pair of socks—instead only to find one that is not yours, an artifact of the life you had before the death or the divorce.  In that moment, it feels like you are inhaling glass with every breath.  Reality is the jagged corner of the table you hit your head on, and all you can feel is disorientation.  This is the place where Christ lives, in the agony.

There is a space, not at the bottom, but a little lower than that, after you’ve finished the bottle, after you roll out of a foreign bed.  In a way you don’t feel like you are you at all, but the mirror doesn’t lie—the damning evidence that this is unmistakably you, down here again.  You have no excuses, and you have no alibi.  Everything in your five senses says that you are over.  But in this place that is lower than you’ve ever been, something inside says that this is not all there is.  Already past hot, sticky shame, whatever is still alive inside of you feels numb and indifferent.  Feeling guilty would require you to feel, and that is more than you are capable of.  You are lonely, but something in you says you are not yet abandoned, as if a soft voice calls out to you from the other side of the mirror.  This is the place where Christ lives, the hope that comes without your consent, when hope is no longer possible.

There is a moment between sleeping and waking when reality has no jurisdiction over you. You are not awake to the pain; the sharp cold of loss hasn’t been poured over your head like an ice bucket.  You are every version of yourself, and yet not tethered to any one version in particular.  This space is something like the place that you knew before you came here, the existence before heartbreak.  This is the place you somehow sense you might go, after.  You don’t exactly where you are or when you are, only vaguely that you are loved, and that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Held in this in-between place, you are at home in your yearning.  This is the place where Christ lives.  This is the field that is ripe with resurrection. 

            Not just in hope, not just in heartbreak, but in the place in-between, Christ happens, over and over. 

unprovable

unexplainable

undeniable.

I believe in the story of Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and resurrection, to be sure.  The particular language of that story is essential to me.  But deeper than any language, every cell of me believes that Love keeps on finding us where we are, long after we are past being found.  And that is the story I believe the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus ultimately tells, and keeps on telling, in and through us.  

For Charlotte & Tulsa, the only cities I've ever loved & lived in

For Charlotte and Tulsa, the only two cities I’ve ever loved:

I have only really loved and lived in these two cities—Charlotte for 37 years, Tulsa for the last 15 months.

In some ways, they seem galaxies apart from each other—the ornate beauty of Charlotte’s endless trees, versus the sparser beauty of Tulsa’s flat landscape and her big sky; the eastern edge of the country versus the dead center of it; the home of America’s banks versus the home of Woody Guthrie.  Yet in so many ways, they are alike.  Jim Bakker on one side of the chasm, Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin on the other.  Both cities are crowded with steeples, chock full of Baptists and charismatics, wall-to-wall with holy rollers—from robed Episcopal choirs to strobe lights and the grinding guitars of God.  We are not only more religious than other Americans; we are more religious than Moses and Paul.  We live in “the Christ-haunted landscape,” the well from which your favorite televangelist drew his holy water.

The thing is, the last time I heard of a televangelist who sold holy water, he got in trouble after his late-night flock started getting sick off of it. They hoped there was a panacea at the bottom of the vial, but there turned out to be trace amount of feces there instead.  And this, it seems, is the other thing Charlotte and Tulsa have in common: both towns have shit in their holy water.

Just because our cities have a lot of churches, does not mean they don’t have racial divisions and systemic sins.  Under our stack of dusty old Bibles, all sorts of things have been growing in the darkness.  And somehow now, it seems, the hard bright light of cable news is shining into it.  Whatever faith we thought kept us from speeding tickets and got us better parking spaces, was not big enough to abolish the walls that separate us from ones we would call brother and sister. Both towns have their own historic demons of racism and injustice, demons we’ve evidently been exercising, rather than exorcising—they seem bigger and stronger now, than ever.

But surely it is not just the light of video cameras that shines into our darkness; but something of God’s light in it—the light that exposes, all that God wants to heal.  Surely there is Love that brings hope to the darkest of our shadows, even the long shadows of our steeples.  Surely. I have nothing novel or clever to say about any of this. I don’t know what to say, to my black brothers and sisters. I don’t really know what to say to the white ones, for that matter. My mouth is dry, my eyes are red; my hands are shaky. And yet somehow, I do believe God wants to heal the open wounds of hate and of history—the open wounds that we pretended were long-healed scars.   If we will name them. If we will own them.  If our churches lead the way not in external acts of piety and religious kitsch, but in humility and repentance.

This starts now. This starts with me.  I admit I am complicit, in the racial divisions that tear at the fabric of both my two beloved cities. I confess my own part, in the crucifixion of God. The things I fear in my neighbor, are only a projection of the things I fear in me.  I have been so very afraid. I have not attended to the cries of my brother, or the sounds of my sister.  I’ve been lost in my head, and in my own life, dear Tulsa.

I am so, so very sorry.  

On Shauna Niequist's Present Over Perfect

           Shauna Niequist’s exquisite, gorgeously written new book, Present Over Perfect, is out today.  It also happens to be her best.  This is a writer at the height of her powers.   Her prose feels effortless—though as usual, she is altogether honest about all the ways her life is anything but.  This paradox captures much of what is so special about Shauna as a writer.  Pavarotti singing opera, Kanye making beats, and Russell Westbrook driving the lane all feel effortless too, but genius is deceitful that way.  The fact is, Shauna is a ruthlessly smart writer and relentless reader (who seems to read and metabolizes basically every good book ever written), but isn’t pretentious about any of it.  

This at least partly accounts for why Present Over Perfect occupies such a unique space.  When you read it, you will believe she does in fact experience life in all the elementally human ways that you and I do—but she tells about it much better than any of us could.  There is a sparseness, cleanness, an economy of words in the book that especially compels me.  Present Over Perfect does not contain a wasted sentence, nor for that matter a dishonest one.  Like, Hemingway, one of her literary heroes, she does not waste space with superfluous adjectives, fluff, or really anything that doesn’t actually take you anywhere. 

Shauna is s a master storyteller who makes every chapter feel like the content of a conversation over wine after one of her famous feasts.  But as she’s sharing her stories and her wisdom, she’s taking you down into the depths of your own soul.  Her own candor about love and family and work and fear broke me open to feel the frantic, harried nature of my own still frazzled inner life, and stirred up the ache and longing for a deeper, richer way of being.  And then she takes us on the journey with her, marking the signposts on the way toward wholeness. 

I was not surprised at the wit, honesty, or grace in the telling.  I was not surprised either by the clarity with which she narrates her hopes and heartaches, nor the ways she puts me back in touch with my own.  The universality—the getting-to-the-thing-beneath-the-thing quality, is something I’ve come to expect from Shauna Niequist as a writer. 

What I was not prepared for, perhaps, was just how much Present Over Perfect made me believe that it might yet be possible to de-clutter my own life for the “simple, more soulful way of living” she describes here.  For while I admire Shauna’s brand of truth-telling, the book made me want to live these truths even more than amen them.  There are no hollow or over-simplified promises here, which is part of why Present Over Perfect transcends the Christian living genre.  This is hard fought for, experiential wisdom forged in the fire of reality.  This is an invitation not to change your mind, but to change your life—a book that almost can’t be read without prompting prayer, tears, and self-examination.

And yet, none of it feels high, lofty, or esoteric.  Present Over Perfect is a summons to attend fully to the moment you’re in—the place where God always is.  To read it, is to come awake.

            

 

God's death matters.

A series of run-on images gallop through my brain: Alton Sterling’s body twitching, as his eyes roll back. The bright red stain spreads underneath Philando Castille’s white t-shirt. A wide-eyed little girl in the back seat. A black protestor poses with two cops, one white, one black — innocent grins stretched over each of them — before the shooting of five police officers in Dallas. A broad-shouldered black cop, tears streaming, hugging a light-skinned woman, after. The reel flickers: I see a cross; the swollen eyes of God looking down at me. I cannot un-see any of these things. I do not understand the things that are tensing up inside me, like a coiled snake.

I want to detach myself from all of it, as if at least one “they” is not somehow “us,” as if I share no complicity in the world I helped create. I share the inclinations of a people still, to think I am an ahistorical man, a practitioner of an ahistorical religion, a follower of an apolitical Jesus. Yet the cross is not just where God once appeared, it is the place God is always appearing: the face of Jesus contorted by human violence performed on him— God’s own body, twitching. I stand in the crowd as guilty as anyone else, beholding my sin, and perhaps my salvation, in the murder of God.

To behold the lamb at all, is to enter into judgment. The shadow of the cross is the dark that illumines everything. The image of the crucified ones stirs some to defensiveness, to denial, to white-hot shame; some to repentance, humility and trust. The horror turns some to the modern-day Baal worship of the gun, the cult of the metal phallus — a god of our own making that cannot protect nor save. Some turn their eyes to look away. But God appears to us again, through mangled black bodies. We see the fruit of our sin in the bruises. Will we be saved or condemned, based on what we do with what we see?

The night obscures our vision, so we can see everything more clearly. We enter into the ambiguity of blindness, where every broken body is God’s. With blurred eyes we see the stranger, the other, lying naked by the side of the road, and some of us come to bring the oil and wine to nurse his wounds — only to find that God himself is the One we are attending to. Suddenly then, we see ourselves as the one beaten and battered, and we see God in the face of the stranger who comes to attend to us. The eternal One gazes at us from all sides.

Through the mirror, my glass darkly, I see both my own wounds and the wounds I have inflicted, and my sight becomes a summons. What am I going to do with what I have seen? It is not just our safety that is on the line, but our souls that are at stake. Heaven and hell started before we got here, and neither delight nor torment await on our consent to begin. Judgment, like sight, is a summons.

The bodies tell the same truth, on the wood of every lynching tree, but the faces are always changing. Business goes on as usual on the hill of the skull, and yet nothing is the same. The sellers are still selling, the gamblers are still gambling; Pontius Pilate squeezes another dollop of hand sanitizer into his palms, nervously. The cock crows. Disillusioned from it all, the disciples go back to their day jobs, staring blankly at their smart phones. A man — is it a soldier, a cop, a terrorist, an assassin? — lowers an assault rifle, singed by hot tears, and looks up into hallowed, tender eyes. The only thing clear about the man standing under the cross, is that his face is lit up with salvation. Lightning flashes in the distance. The veil is rent. Spirit hovers over the graveyard in the old city. All our hidden ghosts and buried bodies are visible now, walking around in the light of day. The time of our visitation has come.

The jury comes back from deliberating our history, and we await our sentence — while we, ourselves, debate over sentences: “black lives matter…all lives matter!” As if nothing apocalyptic has happened to us. As if we could learn to love everyone, until we’ve learned to love anyone in particular. As if it were just competing ideologies or dueling candidates, and not gods we are trying to decide between. Father forgive us, we do not know what we do.

Until black lives matter to us, God will never matter to us, either.

hey preacher!

Hey preacher!

Don’t let anybody tell you that you ought to detach yourself from the pain of the world, to get “perspective” on it.  Who told you that? You lean further in.  You let the hurt spill into the house.  Let it feed on you.  If there is to be any peace for you, it’s not from some rapture—you find the quiet center in the eye of the storm.  You don’t rise above it.  You go deeper into the black.  You transcend the moment you’re in not by escaping it, but going deeper in, still. 

Hey preacher!

You are here to speak for God and to speak for people who can't speak for themselves.  You speak for poetry and you speak for justice.  You think you get to keep your sanity?  You’re already crazy for doing this at all.  Accept it.

Hey preacher!

Do you really like playing the part of Rev. Lovejoy on The Simpsons?  The hell you do.  You think God somehow wanted you to sacrifice all your native wildness?  Do you hate yourself for denying the jazz in you, the blues in you, the shout in you, the rage in you?  Have you held the fire in for so long, that it’s hollowed you out?  Then do not hold it any longer.  You have a microphone, and you have the fire.  It’s still not too late, to burn it all down.

Hey preacher!

Be nice to the board, and listen to them.  But they don’t know anymore about preaching than you know about engineering or fixing cars, and they don’t get to tell you what to say.  Nobody owns the copyright to the fire in your belly.  Don’t cower.  Seriously. Don’t cower. 

Hey preacher!

You can weep like Jeremiah.  You can preach naked like Isaiah.  You can eat locusts and wild honey like John the Baptist.  You can talk trash like the Apostle Paul, and write in big letters.  You can get sawed in half or have your head served up on a platter.  You can climb Mt. Sinai and come back down.  But for the love of God, say something.  Say something real.  Call the fire down, preacher woman. Make me feel something, preacher man.

Hey preacher!

Go ahead and use those lovely quotes from those great theologians, but don’t hide your heart behind them.  Let them see you bleed a little, too. 

Hey preacher! 

From Herbert McCabe’s Love, Law and Language:   “The Christian minister is meant to be neither the pillar of an established quasi-feudal order, as conservative Christians are inclined to think, nor is he the democratic representative of a quasi-bourgeois society as the progressives seem to suggest; he is a revolutionary leader whose job is the subversion of the world through the preaching of the gospel.  He exercises authority amongst his people not as maintaining an established structure; he is the leader of his people in a movement towards a new community.  He is representative of his people not necessarily in the sense of being their elected spokesman; he may represent them in the way a revolutionary leader does, a way that is not obvious to them and only becomes clear when the revolution is achieved.”

Feel your blood run hot just then while you read that?  Yeah you did.  It felt good, didn’t it?  Because you were not put here to mind the store.  That’s not what you came here for, in the beginning.  You did not come to keep the peace.  You came, for the revolution. 

So go start it.

Hey preacher!

Be a fire and brimstone preacher of love. 

God outside the Stonewall Inn

The night gnaws at me from the outside like the fear does from within, the world in my stomach  is churning. I know there’s a hell because there is a place in me, where the worm dieth not. But brimstone or no brimstone, I am cold. I know the wood beneath me is hot. Seeking comfort, I stretch out my hands, hoping to be lapped gently by tongues of fire.

I’ve been marooned in this moment, a thousand times over. The wind keeps carrying me back to it. And every time, the scene ends the same: she walks over and says she knows she saw me with them. Every time, I hedge my bets, I put my hands in my pockets; I stumble. I swear.  I deny. 

But this is not the Biblical tale, and I am no poor man’s Simon Peter. In the red-soaked heartland where I live, it is okay to say you have seen Jesus. Everybody has seen the man, and everybody has a story to tell about him. People here say they have seen Jesus in thorn bushes and cloud formations and jars of mustard, at the top of the mountain and the bottom of the bottle. People say they have seen the face of Jesus appear in a caesar salad, and heard his voice somehow in the radio static; they’ve seen stars turn into crucifixes like birds in formation. In a way I believe them all, since the One for whom poetry herself dances fills all things, with or without their permission. In a way everyone who says they have seen him tells the truth, even if they don’t mean to. 

So it is not the fact that I have seen him that causes me consternationwe tell those stories with the joy of proud grandparents. It is where I have seen him, and how, and with whom I have seen him. Do I tell her I saw him last week in New York City at the vigil for Orlando, outside the Stonewall Inn? Could I explain how I felt the Spirit in the air, the same Love I felt at the tent revival? But there was no church, and there was no steeple; I was outside the gate with LGBTQ people.

It was the night after 49 sons and daughters lied down in a pool of blood, carried away from their mothers by the evening tide. They were holding onto each other in bathrooms stacked with corpses while blood filled their noses, and the floorand it was the night after. The phones were still lighting up their pockets against lifeless bodies, when the rescue workers came hours later, the sound of heaving mothers in autotune, turned into the sound of an iphone. This was the night after. The people came like Israelites, to a place they knew as a temple, to wail, to chant, to hope, to sing their songs of lament, and to beg their country to stop screwing themselves to death with their own guns. 

It was there I last saw the man from Galilee, amidst the shouts and pain, in the thick of fierce love and God-forsakeness. It was in their tears that I saw the grief of God, and in their clinging to each other I felt God clinging onto us.  Outside the gate, outside the temple, outside the city that kills her prophets and stones those who are sent to herit was there that I last saw him. God with us, the friend of sinners, stood in our midst.   

Some of the friends of Jesus would not be caught dead there. Yet in the same city this week, they took pictures with Donald Trump, with their thumbs in the air. And that day, that one day, they did in fact say but he is the friend of sinners! and they were right when they said it. It is just that their Jesus is only the friend of sinners, when the sinner in question happens to be Caesar. He’s a friend of Caesars, because they want to be friends of Caesars. The old moral majority is frail and mortal now, hoping that Trump can make America great againand Lord willing, make them great again too. Remember us when you come into your kingdom, they whispered to the man in the red ball cap, as they handed their own Iphones to their sons to take their photos.

I, like them, cannot fathom my own complicity in the Babylon I helped to build. We cannot fathom the comedy of our clown's Eucharist, breaking the bread with fingers sticky from blood and gun powder, counting money and getting off.  Preaching a gospel without justice, a God who asks nothing of us in particular toward the poor...a religion in which the cross is negotiable, but the assault rifle is not. The violence in the world exposes the darkness in us, and this is judgment. Still, the lamb standing as if slain draws near to us even now, summoning us to follow him wherever he goes, to love not our own lives even unto death. To come apart from the city of violence, to join him in making all things new. 

Something shifts in my watery stomach while I’m sitting at the fire tonight, revisiting the crime scene of my own betrayal(s). I have acted on my fears more often than on my faith, as much as anyone. But I feel truth rising from the back of me, like hunger. I know I’ve been to many temples, been on the other side of the veil, and found a little man behind a curtain more often than I’ve found some sort of wizard or some kind of ark-most especially behind the veil of my own frail heart.  Yet with relentless consistency, every time I’ve been outside the gate, I have seen the man—I have seen Jesus. But it’s really not Jesus you want me to disown now, is it?  It’s his friends you want me to deny.

Still outside the Stonewall Inn, I know I saw men of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  We hid our faces from them; we esteemed them stricken by God, afflicted.  But Christ was there, with them.  Christ is with all of those who are outside the gate.  I saw him there, in them, all over again.

This time, I will not deny. 

the hovering.

           It’s not that I don’t feel I belong in Oklahoma, but that I rarely feel I belong anywhere in particular, now.  I have no romance with any soil anywhere, anymore.  I am no longer connected to land, to place, to time.  Still I think Oklahoma might be the ideal home for the lost and the homeless: the big open space between coasts, in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everything.  It is a place for drifters shuffling across the dust bowl, Steinbeck country, wide lens sky under which I taste my own grapes of wrath. 

              While I am not intimate with the land, this night is different— feeling the faint electricity in the air still two days away from the storm, the slow early dance steps between sky and thunder.  God hangs over me, heavy-footed in the clouds, arched round like a pregnant mother.  I feel the weight of my losses and the lightness of no change in my pockets, still a long way from home, but so decisively alive.  Spirit is a wanderer and thus an unreliable lover, but I feel her attention through the balmy breeze.  I’m bone tired of turning knobs and fiddling with the antenna, trying to find the frequency where I can listen to her.  But tonight I know… she is listening to me.

            “So....” I feel a shuffling inside, a middle school boy again.  “I’m back to my old ways of talking about you, but still feeling like I don’t know how to talk to you.  I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to ask for, and I don’t know what any of this means.  I just need your help.  Please, please, please…is there some way you can still help me now?”  I don’t quite hear a reply, but I feel more in the wind than far-off thunder—the playfulness of Spirit, the belly of the pregnant mother bouncing over me, laughing.  Tenderness settles over in the cloud, and smiles.

            I feel the stillness rise in me, the quiet just before the storm comes.  The thoughts stop swirling and the voices go eerily silent in my head, the voices of the mad hatter and the old-time preacher, voices from the cell phone and from the peanut gallery.  Spirit presses down on me from the same heavy clouds, an invisible hand in the wind pressed firm against my forehead—telling me to hush.  And then its not the voice of a mother but of a son that comes tumbling from the clouds, the words come rolling through me: “Come unto me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

            This is just happening in my brain, synapses and neurons firing: “I am just telling myself things I want to hear,” I say.  Spirit presses light but firm now, and the hush returns.  The man’s voice is sweet and playful, as I hear the words again, “Come unto me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  My eyes are full now, like the belly of the mother.  The water breaks.  The words come softly, over and over, and I feel something rise inside.  Spirit still hovers in thickness of the clouds.  Then I lose the first part of the sentence, and all I hear is:

And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you rest.

 And I will give you…

 I will give, and I will give, and I will give, and I will give

And I’ll keep giving and I’ll keep giving and I’ll keep giving

And I will and I will and I will and I will

And I am.

            I have no words of my own; too tired now to fight with the wind.  Exhausted, I hear myself whisper “yes” into the Oklahoma sky.  Some part of me trusts that new life is being delivered.  I’ve been born more than once, and died more than once too. Yet I am startled by the newness.  Could it be quite so simple to be born again, all over, just like that?  Saying yes to the wind, and to the pregnant mother? 

            I am still in tears.  The breeze is still laughing.  

 

           

            

grace may yet make us traitors.

Most people of faith (in North America) read every line about everything that matters through the prism of conservative/liberal politics...just like everybody else. These are not theological categories, and I get tired of trying to tread softly around them.

But just this once, let me speak to them directly: the trouble with liberalism, classically defined, is the attempt to get at a just and good end (addressing issues of economic injustice, poverty, and inequality) without a clear spiritual center. It is the great mistake people make, for example, in how they use the teaching of Martin Luther King. Without King's explicit theological framework, King's vision of the beloved community is literally impossible. The kind of world King and other prophets of our time have envisioned, in which there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, is made possible "in Christ." Without the king, and the thoroughgoing transformation that the Spirit of God makes possible, such a community is simply unattainable. Attempts then to extract ideals from this vision of beloved community without a robust spiritual center are destined to fail, and they always do.

On the other hand, contemporary conservative politics often borrow the language of Christian religion explicitly, almost wholesale--and even cite Jesus as the king, without any understanding of the character of the kingdom he founded. Instead of extracting political ends of justice, peace and equality, conservatives attempt to extract some kind of moral system-a kingdom that likewise does not require the king in order to work. This is especially foolhardy, as the gospel not only does not contain a "moral system"--it fundamentally opposes and overthrows moral systems with the radical message of grace. This deception may be more dangerous than the former, precisely because it explicitly co-opts the language of the Church...thus making it even more likely to become idolatrous. The conservative folk religion we have created, unlike its liberal counterpart, uses Christian language but utterly rejects the radical self-sacrificial, enemy love of the cross. The religion of the powerless in the hands of the powerful becomes another religion altogether.

And so finally, the people of God are restless. They are intuitively suspect of liberal ideals that have no soul, and conservative ideals that have no cross. They are disenchanted, disillusioned, and disoriented with the options they have been given. And this is great grace. Where the words of the commentators fall flat, the world becomes hungry for the voice of prophets once again. In the cracks, space is developing for the voice that is altogether Other--the voice that will not be co-opted for the sake of the needs of any particular nation-state.

Where right and left are committed to the welfare of the people of a nation, perhaps the time has come again for people who pledge their allegiance to another kingdom. Over against the voices that are committed to build a better America, there are yet people who crave the peculiar treason of cross-shaped love. In being unlike the world, the Church may yet become a people truly for the world, once again.

Grace may yet make us traitors, to nearly everyone but God.

don't stand up for Jesus (revisited)

Jesus doesn't ask us to stand up FOR him. He asks us to stand WITH him.

Jesus is not in danger. The worst thing that could happen to him has already happened, and God has raised him from the dead. Jesus is not threatened by anyone, or anything.

Even when he was in "danger," he refused to resist evil with evil or to fight fire with fire. He didn't teach his disciples to protect him. He told Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world." (That's this week's lectionary text from the gospels--the Holy Spirit is an awfully wise DJ). When the soldiers came to seize him, and the zealot Peter hacked off the high priest's ear, Jesus tells him to "Put away your sword."

The trouble with so many of us is that we are living from a posture of defense, afraid somebody is going to take something away from us--be it our faith, our freedom, our money, our way of life--maybe even "OUR Jesus!" Because there is very real violence in the world, and thus very real reasons to be afraid, we begin to adapt the language and strategy of a people in retreat--conserve, protect, guard, defend. The instinct is perfectly normal, and quintessentially human. But it is at odds with the gospel of the kingdom. Like the king who inaugurated it, we are called not to self-protect or defend our lives, but to lay them down. We are called not to defend Jesus, but to bear witness to the Crucified One. In the words of Marilynne Robinson's ever wise novel, Gilead, "Nothing true about God can be said from a posture of defense."

God is not in need of our protection, because God is not in danger. And because we share in the resurrection power of Christ, we aren't in any ultimate danger, either. But there are people all around us who are, people who are living in fragile places, on the margins. These are the people Jesus is always standing for, and with. As I have found out first hand in my own shipwreck, he doesn't just stand with the innocent--he stands with the guilty. When I couldn't stand up for myself, Jesus stood up for me. That's why I love him so much more now than ever.

Now he asks us not to stand up for him, but to stand with him--to stand with the lonely, the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the hungry, the weak, the marginalized, the neglected.

"Put away your sword," Jesus would say to us. Don't stand up for yourself, or for your rights.

Don't stand up for Jesus. Stand with Jesus.

the worst case scenario.

No matter who we elect or what stance they take toward the world, it is inevitable: more terror is coming. The technology is too advanced and too accessible in a world that is already horribly broken. I have no doubts that we will live to see more apocalyptic events--not because of prophecy but arithmetic.

The unique claim of the Church, however, is that the worst thing that could ever happen has already happened: God died. We crucified the Son of love. And yet God has overcome the forces of death, with resurrection. This, and only this, is the reason we are able to live in the world without fear.

Now the worst case scenario is not something that evil men might to do us--the worst thing would be that we prove to be unfaithful to Jesus. The tragedies inflicted on us by people who have no light, no love, no gospel, and no truth pales in comparison to the tragedy of people who have the light of Christ denying the poor, the alien, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. The pain inflicted by men full of devils is far less surprising than indifference toward suffering from the people of the cross.

No violence in the world could ever be as tragic as when the Church ceases to be the Church.